Getting on the Ballot

Running for congress is a Constitutionally guaranteed right, just like voting is. So it seems fair that someone who wants to run for elective office should be able to do so without having to deal with any overly inconvenient or discouraging government-imposed administrative overhead or sanctions. Consider for a moment what is actually required to have a fair and effective voting system. In the simplest system, people who want to run for office could just go out and tell everybody they’re running. Then, all we’d probably need in order to have a completely accurate and secure voting process, one that's difficult to cheat and easy to verify, would be to have voters write down on a piece of paper the name of the person they’re voting for, and drop the paper in a locked box with a slot on top. At the end of the election just have a few of the voters count up the votes at each polling place in front of plenty of other voters as witnesses, and compile the votes from the various polling places. The only supplies you’d need are a big stack of paper, some pencils, and a slotted box. Sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? When counting the votes, if the intent of the voter is clear, then the vote gets counted. If not, for example, if the handwriting can’t be read, or more than one name is written down for a single position, then the voter’s intent really isn’t clear and the vote simply wouldn’t be counted. 

If you use some sort of voter identifier (and there are plenty that could be used), you should be able to ensure that the folks who vote are properly entitled to do so, and if you keep track of who voted you should be able to ensure that each voter only votes once. Old tricks like stuffing a ballot box with extra votes or casting votes using names of the deceased should be easy enough to defeat with proper oversight and record keeping. 

An honest election can and should be just that easy, right? Vote on paper, count the votes in an open forum, compile the results, and if needed recount to be sure you got it right. So, it’s reasonable to suppose that any aspect of an honest voting system other than that just described should make it even easier to run for office, easier to vote, easier to count, or easier to recount and verify. If not, it’s only natural to question why that aspect was included in the voting system. And if it actually makes running for office significantly less easy, makes voting more confusing or more restrictive, makes vote counting less subject to public oversight and harder to verify, it’s only natural to conclude that somebody someplace may very well be screwing around with the democratic process itself.

This is where things may begin to get interesting, especially for candidates with no experience with elections who are running as independents, which is who we are, and what we want to do. In fact, in a true republic in which ordinary folks can run for office themselves, virtually everybody who runs for office the first time is in the same position. So shouldn’t we have an election system specifically designed to encourage and facilitate such participation? Remember, elections could be kept as simple as going out and telling people that you want them to vote for you, then those who want to can vote for you as a write-in, and then just count up the votes. Whoever gets the most votes wins. Easy peasy. As it turns out however, most states do indeed impose at least some administrative requirements, and may require a candidate to register, and may also require a candidate to have his or her name on a ballot, and may not even permit write-in candidates. In fact, in some states the requirements to run for elective office are positively draconian. If you’ve never thought about it before, this would be a good time to consider why that might be. 

In virtually every single voting district, getting your name on the ballot requires gathering hundreds or thousands of signatures, and sometimes meeting other requirements as well. But running for congress is as much a Constitutional right as voting is. How would it be if you had to get hundreds or thousands of signatures to vote? Ridiculous, right? Then why should we have to do that to run for office?

Regardless of what you conclude, we candidates do indeed need to conform to the election laws and rules now in force. If we get elected, we can work to change the rules, but until then we’re probably stuck with them. Where do we find the rules? For federal elections, we begin again with the Constitution. Article 1, Section 4, Clause 1 provides “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of choosing Senators.” Thus, the Constitution left it to the states to decide for themselves “the times, places, and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives”, subject to any law that may be passed by congress. But no such law has ever been passed, so you’ll have to research your own state’s election laws and rules to learn what your state’s requirements are. 

To do that, go online and search “(name of your state) election authority”. That should identify the proper contact information, probably a secretary of state or a board of elections. Call them and ask for the information you need to run as an independent candidate, and ask them for copies of the relevant laws and rules, or where you can get a copy. Or, just search for “(your state) election laws and rules”, and see if you can find what you need. If all else fails, call or visit the library of the nearest accredited law school in your state and ask the librarian there to help you find the state election statute (that is, the law written by the state legislature) and the corresponding rules (from an “administrative code” or the like, as promulgated by the board of elections).

You should recognize at the outset that these laws and rules are almost certainly going to be far more complicated than is necessary or reasonable, and they are most likely also stacked heavily in favor of the major political parties, and heavily against independents. That’s because election rules are generally written, implemented, and enforced by state government officers, such as a board of elections, a secretary of state, or the like. These people are typically political appointees, and as such are creatures of the dominant political parties. Therefore, you should expect state election laws and rules to be arranged to confound and discourage newcomers, to induce them to seek guidance from those already entrenched in the system, to protect the interests of the dominant parties, and to make those parties difficult for independents to compete with. Difficult perhaps, but by no means impossible.

The first hurdle that may be placed in front of an independent is being recognized as a candidate. In some states you may run without even informing the state election officials. If anyone votes for you as a write-in, you’re recognized as a candidate by default and the vote is counted. In other states, you’re required to register as a candidate. It may be easy and free to register, such as by filing a simple declaration of candidacy form any time before an election. Or, it may be made arbitrarily more difficult, for example, by requiring complicated paperwork, with a petition containing hundreds or thousands of signatures of people qualified to sign it, to be filed within a certain window of time or by a deadline bewilderingly far in advance of the election, accompanied by a large fee, etc., etc. Each state has its own rules, and it’s your responsibility to find them and comply.

What’s next? Well, being recognized as a candidate is not necessarily the same thing as getting your name on a ballot. As anyone who has voted will recall, when you step into the voting booth there are a lot of names presented there on a list, and you typically vote by pulling a lever or pushing a button placed next to individual names to vote for individuals, and placed at the top of a column of names grouped by their sponsoring party to vote for all of the party’s candidates. As noted previously, in some places it’s not a requirement to be on the ballot and voters can vote for you by spelling out your name on a keyboard or the like. But in other places such voting is not allowed. To run, your name has to be on the aforementioned list of names, the ballot.

The process of getting a candidate’s name listed on the ballot for an election is called “ballot access”. According to the Wikipedia article on “Ballot Access”: 

Historically, there were generally no restrictions on ballot access in the United States until after the introduction of the so-called “Australian ballot” beginning in the 1880s…. 

Perhaps the most prominent advocate of the 1880s ballot reform movement, Dean Wigmore, suggested that “ten signatures” might be an appropriate requirement for nomination to the official ballot for a legislative office. In the 20th century, ballot access laws imposing signature requirements far more restrictive than Wigmore had envisioned were enacted by many state legislatures; in many cases, the two major parties wrote the laws in such a way that the burdens created by these new ballot access requirements (usually in the form of difficult signature-gathering nominating petition drives) fell on alternative candidates, but not on major party candidates. Proponents of more open ballot access argue that restricting access to the ballot has the effect of unjustly restricting the choices available to the voters and typically disadvantages third party candidates and other candidates who are not affiliated with the established parties

(emphasis added)

Thus originally, apparently anyone could get their name on an election ballot quite easily. But political parties appear to have influenced election laws and rules to skew the election system dramatically in their favor. As a result, it is now far more difficult than it used to be to get your name on the ballot for an elected office if you are not a party candidate. Not impossible, just more difficult than it used to be, and more difficult than it has to be, and more difficult than it should be.

As with registration, it may be fairly easy to get your name on the ballot, or it may be onerously difficult. Typically, it requires gathering a certain number of signatures of voters who thereby indicate they want your name to be put on the ballot. The signatures are often gathered by circulating a petition. Often, someone who actually watched the voters sign the petition also has to sign the petition as a witness. Sometimes, the witness must also have his signature witnessed, such as by a notary. Sometimes only a few hundred unique signatures are required; sometimes many thousands of signatures are required. But as noted previously, requiring any signatures at all is an unnecessary, burdensome limitation on ordinary folks’ ability to run for office.

As recently as a couple of decades ago, the only way to gather the required signatures was to conduct a signature drive; get together a slew of volunteers with clipboards and petitions to knock on doors until enough signatures were gathered. Then each of the persons circulating a petition would sign it to testify s/he actually saw every signature as it was signed. That person might be required to sign in front of a notary who would stamp it to confirm that person’s identity and signature. It’s hard to understand why all of this witnessing is deemed a good idea. It is probably possible to cheat the system in some way that would only be discovered if you called the people whose signatures are on the petition and ask them if they did, in fact, sign it. Of course, you can still organize a signature petition drive and have volunteers knock on doors to ask folks to sign a petition. But is there any other way to use modern technology to make it easier?

If only a few hundred signatures are required, it should be possible to collect them just by standing in a place with a lot of foot traffic, and asking passersby to sign your petition. However, if thousands of signatures are required and you don't have the time, the resources, and the volunteers needed to conduct a conventional signature drive, you can try posting an electronic version of the form to sign on a website or blog. Voters can then download the form to their computer, print, sign, scan to an electronic file, and email it to you.  Alternatively or in addition, you can encourage folks to download and print several extra signature pages and ask their friends and families to sign it. The executed pages can then be scanned and emailed back to you. 

Although the petition rules and requirements in your state may require petitions to have original hand-signed signatures and emailed petitions may be rejected as invalid, it's a lot better than doing nothing. Here’s why. The petition requirements are arguably spurious. You’re providing all of the truly pertinent information. If the election officials refuse to credit your signed petitions because you didn’t conform to the rules, you can ask a court to intervene. How to do that is beyond the scope of this site, but you may be able to get the information you need by calling the court. 

It is important to point out here that the foregoing, and indeed all of the subject matter provided here, is provided for informational purposes only. Nothing in the foregoing or any part of this work should be construed to include any legal advice whatsoever, nor does it form a legal relationship between the author and the reader. As always, you are advised to consult a lawyer before taking any legal action. However, you are also reminded that, although it may be deemed prudent to retain a lawyer and in criminal cases you even have a right to counsel, you are never required to have legal counsel. You always have the right to advocate for yourself.

Aside from taking action to get registered as a candidate (if required in your state), and taking action to get your name on a ballot (if required in your state), the next relevant topic is how to campaign effectively while spending as little as possible.